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SUNRISE (CBS4) – As the National Hockey League reels from the news that 35 players from of Russia’s Yaroslavl Lokomotiv hockey organization were killed in a plane crash, the Florida Panthers learned they had lost three former teammates.
Ruslan Salei, 36, Karlis Skrastinsm 37, and Alexander Karpovtsev, 41, were killed when the plane went down Wednesday near Yaroslavl, according to the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.
The private jet was taking members of the Kontinenal Hockey League to a game in Minsk, Belarus when it went down under blue skies at Tunoshna airport. Officials believe a mechanical malfunction was to blame, citing witness accounts that the plane was having trouble gaining altitude before slamming into a signal tower and breaking apart along the Volga River.
One player — identified as Russian Alexander Galimov — and one unidentified crew member were hospitalized in “very grave” condition, said Alexander Degyatryov, chief doctor at Yaroslavl’s Solovyov Hospital.
Among the dead were Lokomotiv coach and NHL veteran Brad McCrimmon, a Canadian; assistant coach Alexander Karpovtsev, one of the first Russians to have his name etched on the Stanley Cup as a member of the New York Rangers; and Pavol Demitra, who played for the St. Louis Blues and the Vancouver Canucks and was the Slovakian national team captain.
Other standouts killed were Czech players Josef Vasicek, Karel Rachunek and Jan Marek and Swedish goalie Stefan Liv.
Russian NHL star Alex Ovechkin reflected the anguish that resonated through the sport of hockey when he tweeted: “I’m in shock!!!!!R.I.P.”
“Though it occurred thousands of miles away from our home arenas, this tragedy represents a catastrophic loss to the hockey world — including the NHL family, which lost so many fathers, sons, teammates and friends,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said in a statement.
The NHL already has been mourning three unexpected deaths of players in recent months, including a suicide and an accidental drug overdose.
The cause of the crash was not immediately apparent, but Russian news agencies cited local officials as saying it may have been due to technical problems. The plane was built in 1993 and belonged to a small Moscow-based company, Yak Service.
In recent years, Russia and the other former Soviet republics have had some of the world’s worst air traffic safety records. Experts blame the age of the aircraft, weak government controls, poor pilot training and a cost-cutting mentality.
Divers worked feverishly to recover bodies in a search operation that lasted well into the night. They struggled to heft the bodies of large, strong athletes in stretchers up the muddy, steep riverbank.
Swarms of police and rescue crews rushed to Tunoshna, a ramshackle village with small wooden houses and a blue-domed church on the banks of the Volga 10 miles (16 kilometers) east of Yaroslavl.
Resident Irina Prakhova was walking to the village pump for a bucket of water when she saw the plane going down and then heard a loud bang.
“It was wobbling in flight, it was clear that something was wrong,” said Prakhova. “I saw them pulling bodies to the shore, some still in their seats with seatbelts on.”
More than 2,000 mourning fans wearing jerseys and scarves and waving team flags gathered in the evening outside Lokomotiv’s arena in Yaroslavl to mourn. Most carried flowers. Riot police stood guard as fans sang to honor the dead athletes.
Yaroslavl Gov. Sergei Vakhrukov promised the crowd that the Lokomotiv team would be rebuilt, prompting anger from some fans at a perceived lack of respect for the dead.
The Kontinental Hockey League has 24 professional teams across Russia, Belarus, Latvia, Kazakhstan and Slovakia that draws players from the NHL and European leagues. Lokomotiv is a leading force in Russian hockey and came third in the KHL last year. It was also a three-time Russian League champion in 1997, 2002 and 2003.
“We will do our best to ensure that hockey in Yaroslavl does not die, and that it continues to live for the people that were on that plane,” said Russian Ice Hockey Federation President Vladislav Tretiak.
(TM and © Copyright 2011 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2010 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)